Glastonbury Abbey’s Twelve Hides

What is the origin of Glastonbury Abbey’s unique “Twelve Hides”? From earlier in its existence than there are records of, Glastonbury Abbey claimed to own “twelve hides” of land that were excluded from the king’s jurisdiction and land taxes.

Why? What was special and different about Glastonbury as distinct from any other Abbey that had manorial judicial privileges?

I have shown here earlier that the original church on the present Abbey site was most probably built in the  440s CE, though due to twelfth century reconstruction in situ this cannot be proved scientifically.

Archaeology indicates that the earliest colony of monks was also in the fifth century, butnot next to the church; it was on the Tor. So why were the people in one place and the church in another?

In the same blog post, I gave reasons for reckoning that the church came first. In another posting  I explored the esoteric symbolism of the Seven Holy Islands, of which Glastonbury was one, and the line from the northernmost, Nyland (also called Andrewsey), to Glastonbury Abbey. It is a pretty safe bet that the Abbey church was built where it was because the location was already a holy place.

St. Patrick, who was very probably Abbot in the 450s, arrived in Glastonbury already a master craftsman at the insidious art of occupying and Christianising the most sacred sites of the Druids, such as the Hill of Tara and Ard Macha (Armagh) in Ireland. He would surely have been well aware of the sanctity of the Tor, which is venerated by Pagans and other native tradition derived faith groups to this day. And, being the son of a Roman high official of Lindinis (the Roman civitas that included Glastonbury), Patrick would have had ready access to the area’s King (or civitas Governor – de-facto ruler, anyway) Cador. One suspects that Patrick bent Cador’s ear to secure the Tor for his Christian monastics.

Glastonbury in the fifth century was a peninsula; Rahtz and Watts (as referenced in my Seven Holy Islands post) say the dry land limit was approximately today’s 10-metre contour. The narrows that define the peninsula were at Havyatt (see Note 2 of that post), a place-name whose combination of Celtic (hav) and Saxon (yatt) elements demonstrates its antiquity (in contrast to the all-English names that are entertaining treasure-hunt-clues to the Templars’ “Somerset Zodiac”).

It is an intelligent guess, which accommodates both the ancient legends and modernly identified ley lines, that the whole Glastonbury peninsula delineated by that 10-metre contour and Ponters Ball, plus the other six of the Seven Holy Islands, comprised the Druids’ sacred Summerland, the symbolic outer representation of Annwn, the Otherworld to which we go at death and where we live between lives on Earth; and that Abbot Patrick was eager to secure this special sacred area for Christ’s church and therefore obtained the ownership of both the peninsula and the other six Holy Islands for his monastic community, that this was the whole of the original land they had, and that these lands, because they were the symbolic Annwn, were already exempt from royal jurisdiction when under Druid control, and the exemption simply transferred, along with the sanctity, to Patrick’s Christians – the mundane basis for their mystique-wrapped special status centuries later.

It is also reasonable to suppose that the Saxon conquerors heard the sacred territory’s name translated to them as “Summer Land” and applied this to the whole surrounding district also, calling it Somersaeta – the land settled (saeta) by the Summer, or Somer, people.

Could the Glastonbury peninsula itself, then,  be the “Twelve Hides”? The measurement is strikingly credible. A “hide” is the main Saxon unit of land. It was supposed to be the amount of land that would support one self-sufficient household. The Celtic “tref” is equivalent. Its area therefore varies with land quality. The Isle of Wight, which is 381 square kilometres, is the most precisely measurable of the districts whose number of hides is recorded in the Mercian Tribal Hidage of c672CE; it was assessed as 600 hides: so on that island, which has few barren or unfarmable areas, the average hide was 63.5 hectares. Rahtz and Watts’s suggested fifth-century Glastonbury peninsula measures between eight and nine square kilometres, so if it comprised twelve hides its average hide size would have been slightly larger: about 70 hectares. As the peninsula included the steep-sided Tor, Wearyall Hill, Stone Down Hill, and Edmund Hill, it seems fully realistic to figure that the average hide size would have been larger than on Wight[1] – although in any case, if 12 was already regarded by Christians as a holy number when the peninsula was chartered as “12 hides”, even if the peninsula was by mundane calculation 13 or 14 hides, its number could have been adjusted to twelve for symbolic elegance.


[1] Wight has high hills too, but is proportionately much less hilly.


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